Just about everybody on the outside–business leaders, school officials, reformers, politicians, journalists–wants incumbent Tom Reece to win the May 20 election for president of the Chicago Teachers Union. But the opinion of the people who’ll actually vote–the teachers themselves–isn’t so clear.

Reece’s challenger is George Schmidt, a high school English teacher and longtime union maverick. Schmidt ran unsuccessfully for the union presidency in both 1984 and 1988. This time he and his running mate, Julia Carr, have assembled a slate of more than 100 candidates running for about a dozen union offices, quite a feat of organization given the complicated rules governing union elections. If they win, it will be the biggest local upset with the loudest reverberations since Harold Washington won the Democratic mayoral primary in 1983. “There are so many fundamental issues at stake: salary, class size, seniority rights,” says Schmidt. “This is a crossroads moment for the union.”

The two candidates are wildly different in style and substance. Reece, 56, is the quintessential union insider, a get-along type of guy with friends in high places. In 1982, when he was an assistant principal at Walt Disney Magnet School, he was elected as the union’s financial secretary. He became a close ally of former union president Jacque Vaughn, sitting at her side during many negotiations with the Board of Education. When Vaughn died in January, Reece was named as her successor, just as she had requested.

Reece declined repeated requests for an interview, leaving those chores to Jackie Gallagher, his chief press aide. “Tom’s strengths are his sensitivity–he is not a grandstanding leader,” says Gallagher. “He is not someone who puts himself first and the troops second. He believes in working together, and I think he has a quiet kind of leadership that is very good for this organization at this time.”

In contrast Schmidt, 48, is a prolific writer and talker who’s never been on the inside of any organization (except for small groups of mavericks like himself) and who’s never run from any fight. As a writer for Substance, a muckraking monthly published by activist teachers, Schmidt has taken on some of the system’s most powerful insiders, uncovering many examples of bureaucratic waste and abuse.

For his efforts he’s been widely denounced as a troublemaker and a rabble-rouser by principals, local school council members, central-office bureaucrats, and columnists and editorial writers in the Sun-Times and the Tribune. Only recently he was drummed out of Amundsen High School, at Foster and Damen, and transferred to Bowen, on the far south side, after the principal accused him of teaching pornography. (The book in question was The 13th Valley, John Del Vecchio’s highly praised novel about the Vietnam war.)

All in all Schmidt is far too radical for most teachers’ tastes, Gallagher contends. “George and his team don’t understand most of the members. Most of our members are not radicals. They just want to do their jobs without getting enmeshed in controversy. They don’t want to be treated as second-class citizens, but they didn’t get into teaching because they wanted to march in demonstrations.”

Schmidt and Carr counter that Reece is the one out of touch with reality. “Everyone on our slate is a classroom teacher, but Reece hasn’t been in a classroom in years,” says Carr, who teaches at Overton Elementary School, 221 E. 49th St. “No one on Reece’s slate is a classroom teacher. They don’t know what’s going on. And they’re dictatorial. When a union delegate like myself tries to speak up against the official policy, they scream ‘Out of order.’ They don’t want to listen to anyone but themselves.”

To prove her point Carr refers to last fall’s contract negotiations, in which the union agreed to a two-year contract that allowed the board to cut wages and dismiss teachers.

“A lot of the teachers were against that contract, but Jacque got it through,” says Carr. “That was her last great performance. She told the board of delegates, ‘This is the best that can be given and you must take it.'”

Other teachers are upset at the union for agreeing in 1990 to allow the board to retire debt by taking money from the teachers’ pension funds. “The board could not have done that without the consent of the union,” says Al Korach, a retired elementary school teacher and longtime union activist. “And that makes me mad as hell.”

Schmidt says he would have held out for more money and smaller class sizes if he had been handling negotiations last fall. Gallagher says he’s unrealistic. “It’s easy to say what you would have done,” says Gallagher. “The fact is there was no money on the table for all of the things George says he would have got. If George had his way, he would have led the teachers out for a long, long strike.”

As Gallagher points out, public opinion was against the teachers. Even school reformers remained quiet when the board rammed through changes, intended to save money, that denied high school students the courses they needed to graduate or get into college. And many reformers want to eliminate union benefits like seniority and tenure so parents and principals have more power to hire and fire teachers.

“Wait until your kid’s stuck in a school where you can’t get rid of an abusive teacher because of tenure rules, then let’s hear you holler,” says one reformer. “My argument with the union, particularly Schmidt’s faction, is that they come across like an old industrial-age union: ‘More money, less restriction.’ Whenever you find parents and principals wanting to change the work rules so they can improve the schools, you have some union guy yelling, ‘You can’t do that–it’s not in the contract.'”

Reece’s strategy for dealing with such hostility is to build alliances with powerful interests, particularly Mayor Daley, that might allow teachers to avoid concessions and bad press. “I’m not saying that a strike is never an option; I’m saying you go as far as you can, making sure you aren’t losing,” says Gallagher. “You just don’t immediately say ‘Strike’ and leap out. We can’t do that to the kids of the school system. We have to fight like hell to keep the schools open while getting the best deal for our members. George doesn’t understand if he thinks we could have gotten more in October. The money wasn’t there. And we were dealing with a complicated network of attack against the classroom teacher.”

Schmidt’s response is to go on the attack–against Daley, the board, Governor Edgar, statehouse Republicans, the press, or anyone else who’s hostile to teachers, even members of downtown reform groups.

“I was in favor of major changes in the schools long before it became fashionable,” he says. “However, the political correctness of today in Chicago is that school reform is a good thing and any criticism of it is a bad thing, and I find that attitude unacceptable. There is no evidence that returning schools to the dictatorial authority principals had 50 years ago will help one kid learn more. I have yet to see reformers in any school seriously attempt to remedy what can be called unsatisfactory teaching, but I can cite dozens of examples where principals have attacked excellent teachers because of politics.

“You can quantify the deficits that children face the closer they are to the socioeconomic disasters of the inner city. I believe the way to deal with the consequences of poverty is to hire more teachers and lower class size. Poor kids need more attention because in many cases they come from shattered homes and they are not nourished by things that motivate them. I know that’s not politically correct to say. I know we’re supposed to blame everything on the teachers. I guess I’m guilty of apostasy in the church of school reform. I’m not like the reformers; I’m not a missionary who visits the poor. I work with the poor. All teachers do, and that’s why I respect the worst teacher more than any school reformer.”

The last time Schmidt ran he drew only 39 percent of the vote. Of course he was challenging Vaughn, one of the union’s most charismatic figures. This time he hopes to pick up more support in the elementary schools.

But Gallagher remains doubtful: “We’ll have our usual defections from the high schools, where they always want a more activist image. But the bottom line is that most teachers don’t want anything to do with George and his rhetoric.”

Schmidt disagrees. He thinks he can get support from teachers disgruntled for a variety of reasons–even the union dental plan. “I’m getting support from a lot of people who used to be close to Reece’s side,” he says. “Look at Al [Korach].” For years Korach was a loyal member of Vaughn’s caucus. He broke from Vaughn in protest over the 1990 pension-fund decision. “He comes with me on the campaign stump and he’s great at working the crowds. He says, ‘Reece spent ten years explaining a dental plan which is only good if you’ve lost all your teeth.’ It’s a great line that sums up this leadership.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.